The Smart Intertextuality of Juliet McKenna’s The Cleaving

The cover of The Cleaving

Gather around children, as the storyteller would say in days of yore. It’s time for a story about stories and how they work, time to explore Juliet E. McKenna’s use of intertextuality in The Cleaving.

Reflecting Past Tellings

The Cleaving is a retelling of the King Arthur myth that gives focus and agency to the women of the story – Nimue, Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere. They walk a new path through the elements of a story familiar to fans of fantasy and folklore, reweaving the threads of British legend into a dramatic new cloth.

By its very nature, an Arthurian telling has a level of intertextuality. For the writer, it’s a chance to respond to and rework previous versions of the myth, and strands of those versions are present in The Cleaving. For the audience, it’s impossible not to compare, contrast, and draw meaning from other tales, unless this is the very first version of Arthur they’ve read.

McKenna uses intertextuality as smartly and discreetly as Marvel did at the start of their film run. You don’t need to know other Arthurian texts to enjoy the story, but if you do, then you’ll get more out of it. It’s a bonus, not the backbone. It’s an approach that rewards readers instead of making demands of them. And unlike those Marvel cameos, The Cleaving doesn’t lose its way later on.

But that’s not the smart part.

Dealing With Gender

It’s not uncommon to talk about how retellings hold a mirror up to past versions of a story. That’s particularly true in The Cleaving, as like a mirror’s reflection, it reverses key elements.

The Cleaving doesn’t flip the genders of any of its characters, sticking with outwardly traditional forms. But it does flip the gender of the story’s perspective, shifting its weight from the male characters onto women. We see sides of this mythical medieval court that other stories might hint at but seldom make their centre.

While this would make for a great story in its own right, it’s a stronger story when it’s read in relation to previous texts. Standing by itself, it’s a cool story about women threading their way through the ugly tangle of other people’s ambitions. Lined up with older Arthurian books and films, it points a finger at them and loudly shouts “Oy, you, look what you’ve been missing!” It demands a conversation about what is absent from the (uh, I hate this word, but I’m going to use it…) cannon.

That textual contrast, by its very nature, takes shots at other established bodies of fantastical and mythological work. Once you see what’s been missing from Arthuriana, with all the interesting nuances McKenna applies, you can’t help looking at other stories and wondering what they’ve left out. Where are the Sherwood stories that centre Maid Marian? Who was that woman whose cakes King Alfred burned?

And to be clear, I’m not saying that these versions don’t exist – 1980s children’s TV did good work for Marian – but The Cleaving, at the very least, sends you looking for them.

And that’s still not the smartest part.

Raising the Stakes

No, my favourite thing about the use of intertextuality in The Cleaving is how it raises the tension.

Other versions of the Camelot story hover like ghosts around the edges of this one, raising spectres of what might be. McKenna doesn’t need to spend a lot of time foreshadowing Mordred as a threat, because the moment his name is mentioned, we know that fucker’s going to be trouble. Oh, yeah, sure, he’s just some prince living on a distant island, no need to worry about that. *narrows eyes* I’m watching you, boy.

For anyone familiar with the legends, Mordred’s name is menace. Small mentions of him build tension. We know he’s coming, but in what form? Will he be the traditional villain? Someone else’s scapegoat? In the mirror world of The Cleaving, is he in the right? We’re left gripping the book tight, waiting for him to arrive, waiting for McKenna to reveal her angle.

For readers not steeped in these legends, it still makes sense when Mordred turns up and does his thing. But for those in the know, he’s a struck nerve that leaves the story tense.

The Drama of Disappointment

Then there’s Lancelot, my favourite detail. As a character, he’s seen more reinventions than Mordred, because he’s a more dramatic part of the myth. Traditionally, he’s the ideal hero, the man of divided loyalties who tumbles into tragedy. We’ve seen him as the sidekick, the romantic lead, the broken heart, even the fraudulent sham of a hero. And so, again, we’re left wondering what McKenna’s version will be like. How will this tragedy play out? We watch and wait and then…

Remember how I said that this story flips our perspective on the gender dynamics, rather than flipping the characters? Lancelot is an example of that. We watch the beats of his arc play out as tradition and fate dictate, and then we get disappointment. Glorious, perfect disappointment. The moment where the ideal knight turns into the sad side of dating. He’s not a shining paragon. He’s not the tragedy of temptation. He’s not a secret villain, the anti-Lancelot, the dark face of chivalry. He’s a bit of a crap bloke, in a way that the other men in the story wouldn’t understand.

It’s a brilliant take on the character because, by comparison with all the others, it’s unexpected, and yet it makes perfect sense.

To create this character without intertextuality would mean spending a whole book polishing the shell of Lancelot, only to crack him open at the end. But this guy isn’t worth a book’s worth of our attention, and because the other texts exist, we don’t need that. We know this is going somewhere, and once again, waiting to see where builds tension.

Efficiency and Absence

The Cleaving doesn’t rely on the great scaffolding of Arthuriana to hold it up. This is an effective story of women living in a world dominated by men and of the hubris that comes with power. But the existence of that scaffolding allows McKenna to leave gaps that her readers will fill with the tensions and contrasts between texts. It adds power to the story without weighing it down, for a telling whose efficiency adds to its readability and whose significance makes it stick in the mind.

This is how to make powerful use of intertextuality – not with passing in-jokes, though those have their place, or with the tangled continuity that makes some stories inaccessible, but by letting contrast and comparison add tension to a story that stands in its own right. Making a whole body of mythology into a mirror that your story can peer into and say to itself “damn, I look good.”

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If you want an actual review of The Cleaving, instead of one obsessive ranting about a point of technique, then The Middle Shelf has you covered. I also recommend Juliet McKenna’s blog for thoughtful insights into her own work, as well as the wide world of fantasy literature. She’s done a lot of good work on and off the page, and is someone worth listening to.

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Ashes of the Ancestors

The cover for the book Ashes of the Ancestors by Andrew Knighton

In a haunted monastery at the heart of a crumbling empire, a lone priest tends the fires for the dead. A servant bound by the bones of her family, Magdalisa is her people’s last link to the wisdom of the past.

But as the land around them dies, new arrivals throw the monastery into turmoil. A dead warlord demanding recognition. Her rival, seizing the scraps of power. Two priests, both claiming to serve the spirits, both with their own agendas.

As ancient shadows struggle for the soul of an empire, Magdalisa must decide how far she will go to keep tradition alive.

A fantasy story about tradition and our relationship with the past, Ashes of the Ancestors is out now:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Stories and Faith in Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun

From the very first page, Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun sets out its big themes of intertextuality and faith. Before we meet the protagonist, Catherine Helstone, we get an invented quote from a missionary espousing the need to spread the Christian faith in Arcadia. We’re in a story of interwoven texts, one that depicts a collision between two narratives of great power – European fairytales and Christianity. This is a book that dives deep into the playground of stories, and in doing so highlights their role in making faith possible.

But before I head down the rabbit hole (or up my own arse, depending on how you view these things), let’s start by defining some terms…

Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the exploration of the relationship between texts. In books, it usually involves a writer leaning heavily on references to other stories. In the examples I like, recognising the references adds meaning to the story. But there are times when a story becomes virtually meaningless if you don’t know what it’s referring to. Intertextuality can be powerful and exciting, but it can also become a barrier to understanding (I’m looking at you, James Joyce).

Intertextuality has always been a part of fiction. This video by the Nerdwriter explores its part in modern Hollywood, while Extra Credits’ recent introduction to Frankenstein highlights its role in classic literature.

Faith

Faith is a tricky word. It means different things to different people. Here, I’m going to be talking about religious faith – a powerful belief in a particular view of reality and the moral teachings that arise from it, a belief that does not need to be grounded in evidence, but is more often rooted in the believer’s emotions and instincts about the world.

Blurring the Lines

Under the Pendulum Sun is rich with intertextual references. Each chapter starts with a quote from a book, letter, pamphlet, or diary that exists within its world. Its style is a reference to 19th-century fiction, including the gothic fears fostered by the likes of Mary Shelley and the more grounded stories of social and emotional struggle written by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters.

The references to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are particularly obvious, from Catherine’s encounter in the countryside with the master of her new home to the lost and damaged woman roaming the corridors of their house. It’s a nice example of intertextuality as bonus content. Having recently read Jane Eyre, I got a thrill from reading that the woman’s eyes darted with fire and from a description of the lights of the house seen from the countryside. But those parallels aren’t essential to understanding the story.

In a story about missionaries trying to spread the Christian faith, the references to the Bible are the most important. From a house named Gethsemane to the sermons and readings of the characters, Christian stories are everywhere. And of course….

Christianity is Intertextual

Christianity is based on a mass of interwoven texts. The books of the Bible, which existed separately before they were brought together in a single tome, are full of references to each other. The New Testament parables are stories within a story. If the accounts of his life are to be believed, Jesus was constantly whipping out a good story to make a moral point. It’s impossible to make sense of the Book of Revelation without referring back to preceding stories of the Jewish and early Christian communities. And our interpretations of this are built on two thousand years of people studying these books, a great mass of intertextual scholarship.

Where faith and intertextuality meet, there you find Christianity. That makes an intertextual story like this one perfect for exploring Christian faith.

Blurring the Lines

Intertextual stories blur the lines between one work and another. If you read both Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses, your reading of one will include memories of and reflections on the other. A Star Trek episode involving a holodeck Sherlock Holmes can’t exist without Conan Doyle’s stories, and someone who’s watched that episode may find images of Mr Data interrupting their reading of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The stories start to blend.

But they don’t just blur the lines between different fictions. Stories can blur the lines in our heads between what’s real and what isn’t. Stories help us to make sense of the world, and in doing so they open us up to believe in what they offer. Mr Benjamin, the fae servant in Under the Pendulum Sun, specifically says that he is looking to find his place in the Christian story. It’s a natural impulse, to want to be part of something that makes sense, and so we want to accept that perspective as real. However true they are or aren’t, religious stories blur the line between the world they present and the one we experience.

Faith is made possible through something akin to intertextuality.

Stories Versus Stories

In that sense, it might seem ironic that the fae in Under the Pendulum Sun are immune to Christianity’s charms. Like many fae in modern fantasy, they are bound by narratives. As Mr Benjamin says, “Fae are nothing but stories”.

But isn’t this itself a reflection on faith? If we already have a story, like the fae do, then it protects us from the power of other stories. No amount of reasoning will break through to the “true believer”, and neither will an alternative tale. Their faith, for better or for worse, is a story, one that is intensely powerful to them.

The characters in Ng’s book stumble through story after story. Stories about God, about themselves, even the stories they made up as children and that they now find reflected in the world of Arcadia. Their stories set their moral boundaries, as shown by Catherine’s behaviour, which shifts with the story she believes about herself. Even on the final page, it’s through reference to a story that they find a way to move on.

This is a story about stories. It’s a story about faith. And it’s a story about how deeply the two are tied.